Canada’s role in the world is on the line in this election

A man walks past the flags of participating nations at the 2017 United Nations Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday November 14, 2017. The two-day conference is largest gathering of defence ministers dedicated to UN peacekeeping. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

It’s a big deal for the United States to agree to share its nuclear submarine technology with another country, as it agreed to do with Australia this week.

The agreement was part of a surprise announcement of a new security pact dubbed AUKUS, a portmanteau that elides abbreviation of the names of the three member states: Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Although the official announcement didn’t mention China specifically, the British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, helpfully filled in the blanks. He described AUKUS as a response to China “embarking on one of the biggest military spends in history,” and, “growing its navy [and] air force at a huge rate,” and he explained that “[o]ur partners in [the Indo-Pacific region] want to be able to stand their own ground.”
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Canadians of a certain age may remember when, after the 1987 Defence White Paper proposed building a dozen nuclear-powered submarines to patrol Canada’s three coasts, the United States relied on a pair of treaties from the 1950s to stop us acquiring the technology from either the U.K. or France.

Faced with opposition at home and from our closest military ally, the Mulroney government first shelved the plan and then officially cancelled it.

This Cold War history highlights two notable aspects of this week’s announcements. First, that the United States views the threat posed by China as serious enough to warrant a new regional security pact to justify expanding the list of countries with nuclear powered submarines. And second, that Canada either wasn’t interested in joining the alliance or that we weren’t invited.

Whether Canada opted out or was omitted, our absence is notable. Although it is easy to forget it from the seats of power in central Canada, we are a Pacific country, as much as the United States and certainly more than the modern United Kingdom. We are also a G7 country and a founding member of NATO, with a history of joining our fellow democracies inconstraining authoritarian regimes.

It is hard not to hear the warm words of the AUKUS leaders for each other’s countries, their shared histories and their kindred values, and not feel left out.

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This is now the second alliance in the last four years in which the Canada has not joined the United States and Australia. At the 2017 ASEAN in the Philippines, the United States, Australia, India and Japan announced the revival of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad.” Although Prime Minister Trudeau attended the ASEAN summit, he skipped those talks.

We can draw one of two conclusions from this pattern. One is that our whilom friends and allies no longer think we bring value to this sort of regional initiative. Evidence for this would be our chronic and decades-long underinvestment in our military capacity, and particularly in the Royal Canadian Navy.

The second is that, under the Trudeau government, we are consciously decoupling ourselves from our traditional alliances.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau defends handling of China and 2 Michaels, says can’t be ‘lobbing tomatoes across the Pacific’'
Trudeau defends handling of China and 2 Michaels, says can’t be ‘lobbing tomatoes across the Pacific’

On balance, I think the second conclusion, that we are the disinterested party, is the more likely. With one eye on China’s rise and another on America’s apparent decline, our government seems to prefer non-alignment to picking sides in an uncertain geopolitical rivalry. This approach also happens to align with Canadian corporate interests and Ottawa’s diplomatic inclinations.

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The orthodox diplomatic case for opting out of AUKUS and the Quad was made powerfully in a 2020 report by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

The report recommended “a policy of equidistance toward the U.S. and China,” one that “reject[s] the ‘great power conflict’ paradigm that now informs the Australian and U.S. Indo-Pacific visions” in favour of “a vision … that includes China and that accommodates China’s strategic interests, even at the cost of continued U.S. hegemony.”

The report is palpably sensitive to accusations of “appeasement” (a label it pointedly rejects) by those who believe “China is an existential threat against which Canada must balance through engagement with ‘likeminded’ countries.”

The author is right to be sensitive. While there are strong pragmatic reasons to maintain our bilateral relationships with regional powers like India and Japan without alienating the Chinese regime or ambivalent smaller East Asian countries, I expect many Canadians would be uncomfortable adopting such a morally anemic stance.

The fact that the AUKUS announcement came during a Canadian election is telling. It must have come with our government’s tacit blessing or indifference, because if Trudeau had wanted Canada to join our allies, surely the announcement could have been put off by few weeks. Most likely, the other countries knew not to even bother asking.

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As prime minister, Trudeau has has shown little interest in strategic defence or geopolitics. This means that Canada’s foreign policy has largely been left to the grey men and women of the Pearson building and their instinct for triangulation, hedging and generally doing everything possible to avoid choosing sides.

The problem with this approach is that, if you stop showing up for your friends, eventually you stop being invited to join them.

All this could change, however, if the Conservatives and Erin O’Toole pull off an upset and form government after Monday’s federal election. The Conservative party platform reflects a much clearer — critics would probably say a more bellicose — view of Canada’s role as a middle power, one in which that phrase refers only to our relative size and not to a desire to maintain a “policy of equidistance” between our friends and our antagonists.

Trudeau came into office crowing that “Canada is back,” but through a combination of disinterest and neglect, we’ve repeatedly ended up on the sidelines. That has been a choice.

Now, in this election, voters have a choice: do we continue to free ride on the goodwill of our allies, or do we step up and rejoin them as a full partner?

Howard Anglin was senior adviser of legal affairs and policy and deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper. He is a postgraduate researcher in constitutional law at Oxford University.


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